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Portugal U-21

How Portugal U-21 became the UEFA tournament favorite – tactical analysis

This year, the European Under-21 Football Championship is held in a strange format due to the calendar, which has moved after the coronavirus: the group tournament held separately in the March window of the national teams, the playoffs held separately between the club season and The EURO. Because of this, the coaches of the youth teams received very little time to prepare for the tournament, and “adult” teams also took some of the strong players who matched their age and in the standard tournament scheme could help their youth teams.

Nevertheless, there were several teams at the tournament that were interesting to follow. Even in the absence of time for preparation, they showed clear game ideas. bookmaker-ratings.com analyzed one of the most exciting teams: Portugal U-21.

Rui Jorge tactical ideas

Although Portugal coach Rui Jorge complained that due to the Euro in March there is little time for team preparation and the intensity of the players will not change, the team played very well in all three matches. Against Croatia: tore the opponent through the centre but allowed sharpness in transitions. Against England: gave the ball a little more often and had a little less possession of the ball in dangerous zones, but played well in defence and allowed only 3 shots per match. Against Switzerland, two successful scenarios coincided: high-quality ball advance through tight zones and giving very low chances to the opponent to score. Portugal’s play, firstly, makes the team a favorite of the Euro before the playoffs, and secondly, it again emphasizes the thesis that arose after the first successes of Thomas Tuchel at Chelsea: the already built clear structure is enough to consistently provide the quality of play in a short time.

The main idea of Portugal is to first stretch the opponent’s pressure or middle block with horizontal control and then quickly move the ball into the created space with vertical and diagonal passes. The idea works due to the very strong saturation of the centre and semi-flanks, as well as the constant movement of the diamond players following the ball. In the first phase of possession Portugal eliminates the risk until free zones appear (almost all passes are to the closest players), only the full-backs create the width, eights and even ten often come closer to the central defender and the six following the ball. There was a double effect in these movements: if the opponent reacted passively, Portugal received a +1 option in the build-up, if the player left the zone behind the eight, like the Croatian midfielders, the ball was immediately brought into the created space.

The effect of the idea of ball control was enhanced by the possession structure: 4-3-3 with deeply supported striker Tiago Tomás against Croatia, 4-4-2 rhombus in the next two games. It is very difficult to press the rhombus without giving freedom to any of the players in the rhombus, and Portugal perfectly caught the moments when the opponent’s central midfielders left their positions and opened the zone between the lines in the centre to support tens in a rhombus or a striker.

Portugal in build-up
Screenshot from official channel of English national team,

When movement created free space, Portugal moved the ball a lot, both between the lines and in-depth. Again, false openings were used to increase the space. For example, while the attacker was staying in front of the defender and pretending to get the ball, another player ran behind him.

Trincão was the least likely to fit into this game idea, being the most effective in a wide position. But Rui Jorge slightly adapted the structure to him, which made it even more uncomfortable for opponents.

Trincão was the only player in the attacking group to consistently create width, and when the ball went wide to the right. Portugal built triangles within which they could move Trincão to the centre and perform a shot. And when attacking through the centre, Trincão helped with the runs behind defenders backs.

Defensive performance

Another positive effect of the structure is the constant willingness to counter-press. When Portugal built an attack on someone else’s third through the centre, 2-3 midfielders immediately reacted to the loss and, due to the compactness, they managed to collect the second balls. At the same time, the compactness was often insufficient (for example, after a loss on the flank), and the team allowed 1-2 passes without pressure. Then the reaction to the loss from the defenders helped. The flank players, Dalot and Correia, narrowed and played out 1v1 when trying to get out through the flank. The central ones, Leite and Queiroz, pressured high and covered from the back at the time of the reception. Against such counter-pressing, only Croatia periodically ran out in dangerous crossings.

Portugal in defence
Screenshot from official channel of English national team, https://www.youtube.com

Portugal’s rivals very rarely brought the ball between the lines past the three midfielders, but if they did, a pair of central defenders Leite-Queiroz, who also played three matches strongly, came to the rescue. Both were impeccable in the game in the reception, supporting the space between the lines, and in defence against the passes behind the back.

In conclusion

The obvious heroes of this Portuguese national team are the central midfielders, starting with eights. Vitinha more often than other players dropped to the bottom three behind the ball, due to very tight ball control he kept the ball under pressure and moved it a lot between the lines. As a result, as expected, he became the leader of the midfield in progressive passes and proceeding to the final third. Pedro Gonçalves, regardless of the role, be it a left-winger in 4-3-3, striker or left eight in 4-4-2 rhombus, received a lot of the ball between the lines, gave a lot of work in the form of both passes and openings behind the back.